One of the most frustrating things about learning another language . . .

Is people telling you “it doesn’t translate” all the time! I’m in my second college Spanish class right now. I’m a non-traditional student and I’m not taking it because I have a foreign language requirement or I just need the credits or whatever. I’m taking it because I want to learn Spanish. There are a million examples of this but the one that came up today was this: We were talking about lo siento and I asked what it meant literally. The professor kept telling me it meant I’m sorry, etc. I said I know what it means figuratively, I want to know what it means literally.

“It doesn’t translate. It doesn’t translate.”

Yes it does. They aren’t just meaningless words. They are put together for a reason. We had just learned sentir, so I said siento is “I feel”, what is the “lo” referring to? Finally I coaxed it out of her that it’s “I feel it”, which made perfect sense to me. It might not translate to something we would say, but it absolutely translates to something we can understand.

I’m sure there are plenty of phrases that produce confusing translations. Someone in another thread recently pointed out how difficult it would be to translate “badass” literally from English. But every phrase I’ve come across so far and been told it doesn’t translate - it turns out it actually does.

I get so tired of hearing “It doesn’t translate. It’s idiomatic. It doesn’t translate.” Yes it does! Just tell me what it means and that will give me so much better an understanding! I don’t like using words haphazardly without knowing what they mean.

Just say, “I want to know what it means etymologically — I’m interested in word history.” Then they can say, “oh, bad + ass” or “it + I-sense” without worrying that they’ve spoiled your chances of accurate language use forever.

If someone asked me to translate badass, I would warn them that it doesn’t translate directly, but I would still try for them.

I would say bad is negative, but Michael Jackson made a record in the '80s and flipped the meaning around to mean cool or tough.

Ass is your butt, but in this term it’s just a vulgar modifier.

So badass means good, cool, or tough.

That might not be the best attempt at translating but hey, I’m not a college professor for one thing, and for another it makes things clearer than saying, “It doesn’t translate. It means xyz.”

“It doesn’t translate” is just so frustrating to me. Those words mean something.

Okay, saying that “lo siento” doesn’t translate is just bullshit. It obviously means something, and something quite easy to translate at that. But SOMETIMES, you do get words that simply do not translate at all. Hebrew has one, “et”.

If you see a dog, you would say (in Hebrew, obviously): “I see a dog”. But if you see a specific dog, you would say “I see et the dog”. It literally does not mean anything at all in English, it just makes a sentence extra-specific. I actually once had a really stupid argument about this with an (annoying in general, not just about this) Israeli-American girl, who kept insisting it meant “the”, which it absolutely does not. As a native Hebrew speaker and a near-native English speaker, it seemed so obvious to her that it was necessary that she seemed unable to comprehend that it doesn’t have an equivalent in English.

I would be kind of worried if my professor were unable to explain exactly what “lo siento” means. That sounds like the kind of mistake an untrained language teacher might make. When I first started teaching English as a Foreign Language, I often found it difficult to explain why English had Rule X or Rule Y - it just does, which isn’t a very satisfying answer for a student. Eventually I had to learn a shitload of grammatical rules that, as a native speaker, I had never thought about much.

Thank you! I’m not sure about this teacher yet, but I did drop a Spanish teacher once for telling us that “adios” has nothing to do with God. I don’t know Spanish, but I knew she was wrong about that, and didn’t want to have to do twice the work that semester by fact-checking everything else she told us.

“Do” can be like this in English.

You want to go to the park? Vs. Do you want to go to the park?

“Do” doesn’t mean anything in that sentence, and I doubt it translates to very many languages.

These are the exceptions, of course. I’ve found that most things translate. Like I said, they may not always translate to something we would say, but they virtually always translate to something we can understand or can be explained to us.

But how to you translate those little “helper” words like “que” and “même” and “schon”? There just is no one-to-one translation into English for words like that. It depends on the context.

Qué is what. I think que is like, that. What language are même and schon from?

French que can translate as approximately that, than, only, when, if, whether, to, for, may, depending on context. It can also be used when normal word order is reversed, and to repeat a conjunction. There’s no English equivalent. Même is also French, and means roughly “same” or “even”, except not quite. Schon is German and is sort of a general purpose intensifier. One English translation is “already” (think New York Jewish immigrants), but there are many other uses, some of which just don’t translate directly to English words. See

If you had been in an accident, and the doctor was checking for broken bones etc. here and there on your body, might you actually (correctly) say, “Lo siento…no lo siento…” etc.? A “good” student would think, ‘No, I don’t want to apologize to the doctor…I guess I just don’t know how to say what I need to say.’

No, it isn’t anything like “do”. It really is like an extra, untranslatable “the”. Actually, Bulgarian (and other Slavic languages, too, I suspect) does have a thing like your “do” example, though. If a question has a yes or no answer, it has to have the word “li” in it. For instance, “imash kotka” means “you have a cat”, but “imash LI kotka” turns it into a question: “do you have a cat?” (I’ve just started Persian and only know about ten words so far, but it also has this feature.)

I like languages.

Crud, I just realized you were comparing “et” to “do” only in the sense that it’s untranslatable, not that they mean the same thing. Never mind. Yes, I’m sure you’re right, although my Hebrew was never good enough to make a good comparison - and now it’s really terrible.

Saying ‘‘lo siento’’ doesn’t translate is just estupido.

However, it’s true that some things are really tough to translate. You can always do a ‘‘gisted’’ translation but word-for-word is not really going to happen.

Ok here’s a good example. The word razón. You can have razones for doing something and you can also* tener razón*, or be right.
Shakira has a song called ‘‘No Creo’’ (I Don’t Believe) with the line,

‘‘Solo Tú doblas mi razón y por eso dónde quieras voy.’’

‘‘doblas mi razón’’ might be literally translated as ‘‘double my reason’’ or ‘‘double my right’’ (if someone is right they tiene razón.)

So the best literal translation would be something like Only you double my reason and therefore wherever you want, I’ll go.

This of course doesn’t make a ton of sense, but you get the gist.

The thing is, I don’t know how I would translate that to English in a way that would make sense, without losing the actual meaning of it. This may be a limitation of my Spanish language skills, but it might also be a limitation of the languages themselves.

Also, I’ve yet to find a satisfactory translation of the English ‘‘silly’’ into Spanish.
‘‘Tonto/tonta’’ is the most common translation but ‘‘tonta’’ has an air of stupidity to it, a kind of denigration that just does not exist in the innocent silly. If someone knows a good translation, please let me know because every time I do something strange I need to know the proper way to justify it to my Spanish-speaking brethren.

Does it mean reason in all the definitions it does in English, too, though? Reason as a verb would make more sense in the context of the quote than reason as a noun. I know that it says “my reason” which would seem to indicate that it’s a noun but I forget if there’s an equivalent to -ing in Spanish which would make “my reasoning” take a different form…

‘Et’ in Hebrew is also the direct-object marker. Since Hebrew doesn’t have cases, like some other ancient languages or German, to indicate that a word is the direct object, ‘et’ goes in front of it. But, as in the examples, it doesn’t have any meaning at all, in itself. It’s not that it ‘doesn’t translate’.

I agree with you that this language teacher does not sounds so good…

Seems like a case of mismatched learning styles.

Your teacher seems to be taking a communicative/competency approach, meaning that the focus is on using words and phrases in the correct contexts to do specific things, as opposed to learning a set of rules and vocab and then putting them together as you need them. They want you to learn the “hows” before the “whys”.

I learn great with this method (vocab lists and grammar drills just go in one ear and out the other, but once I’m actually using stuff in conversation I pick stuff up easy) but it’s not for everyone.

Unfortunately, I don’t think you can get what you are looking for from this teacher. They aren’t going to want to stop the class every few minutes with minute explanations- their goal is to get the class communicating and the theory is that the deeper understanding of how the language works will come out as people learn more. Your best bet is to either seek out a new teacher or supplement your studies with a book that uses an approach better suited to your personal learning style.

In any case, often it just doesn’t translate. Try explaining to a foreign language speaker the phrase “I had gotten used to it by then.” It’s gonna take like half an hour and still none of it will make much sense. Few native English speakers have any clue what the rules are for using things like “got”, much less why we use it and how that might relate to other languages.

You can’t hold up class to analyze things like that- sometimes you have to say “That’s just what we say” and move on.

We do it in English all the time. I just had a revelation today that “anomaly” means “a thing without a name.” Did I have any trouble using the word before I realized what it means? No. Does knowing what it means aid me in the English language. Again, no. With this knowledge I might be tempted to call my friends newborn an anomaly, and that would probably get me hit.

Language is ambiguous, and we learn by imitating usage, not meaning.

People started using “bad” that way in the 60s, when MJ was just a kid.

[rambo quote]¡¡¡NO SIENTO LAS PIERNAS!!![/rambo quote]

Said by a lot of Spaniards as shorthand to “rolling my eyes at someone’s obliviouness regarding a FUBARed situation.”
The “lo” in “lo siento” is a pronoun meaning “that I hurt/harmed you.” “I regret that I hurt/harmed you.” The meaning of the verb “sentir,” in “lo siento”, is the fifth definition here: not “feel” but “regret” (which, after all, is equivalent to “feel regret”).

In a shorter version, it would be “I regret it.” The listener is supposed to know what is it that you regret. What your teacher is obviating is the explanation of “but nobody would say ‘I regret’ in English, same as you don’t say ‘estoy lamentoso’ in Spanish” (lamentoso isn’t even a word).
elfkin, “sólo tu doblas mi razón” can be understood as “you double my right” (you make me stronger), “you make me right twice as much” (because I think more clearly, as I have someone to talk with and who understands me) “you make me be twice as right” (because since we agree it’s two of us who are right, instead of only one) or “you double my ability to think” (I think more clearly because I’m more serene). That’s at a fast pass…

Olive, which is the meaning of “silly” that you think doesn’t translate well into Spanish tonto? I agree that calling someone or something “tonto” isn’t a compliment, but it’s also something which changes a lot with its context. Hacer el tonto (to clown around) is completely different from estar tonto (to have a blonde moment) or ser tonto (to be dumb), much less ser tonto del culo (to be so dim you burned out before they placed you on the lamp). Oh, and then there’s tontear (to clown around or to flirt)… have you ever heard the expresion ésa es una tonta de las que hacen tontear? (yeah yeah, she’s one of those ‘natural blondes’ who end up wearing everybody else’s brains around their own little fingers)

And yes, I got all the back translations without using “silly” once :smiley: This kind of games is always fun, as well as a great way to build vocabulary.

Weird, in that song, I always took the other meanings of “doblar” (as in bend, turn around). “Solo tú doblas mi razón y por eso a donde tú quieras voy”… Only you bend my reason (to fit yours) and that’s why I go wherever you want to go. It seems to fit better the whole “I only trust you, I have complete faith in you” theme of the song.

Link to the song, may have pop ups.

Refer to RAE (, try this link, definitions 5, 6, and 7 for doblar.